Sofia Gubaidulina’s world has always been fraught with dualisms. Growing up in the bleakly Manichaean them-and-us atmosphere of the late Stalinist nightmare, she from her earliest youth found a natural home for herself amongst the richly creative enthusiasms of the Soviet intelligentsia, a fascinating group of people (artists and thinkers) who, building on the inheritance of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, held themselves together and were driven forward by a passionate urge to assert the value of the traditional and the spiritual against the brutally vulgar past-forgetting materialism espoused by officially state-sponsored ideology.
And then there were the equally rich splits and divisions in her personal background, growing up in the ancient city of Kazan on the borders between Europe and Asia, mixing European and Tatar family roots through her devoutly communist parents, and yet fascinated by religion from her earliest childhood. Her paternal grandfather was a mullah, her mother’s family from an Eastern European Christian background and as she delights in repeating, “my other parents,” her first teachers, brought her what she considers her Middle European Jewish inheritance.
Dualisms, oppositions and contradictions of these kind are everywhere and immediately audible in her music.
Labyrinth, written for 12 cellists from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, is a case perfectly in point. From the very opening notes, we are swept into a divided ritual, half ancient ecclesiastical liturgy (the music abounds in echoes of early Orthodox chant), half wild shamanic incantation (Gubaidulina has a long-standing interest in the still living shamanic traditions of Central Asia and Siberia). What holds the structure of this ritual together, as always with this composer, is an extremely careful and elaborate use of proportion. Proportion, for this composer, is the primary building material of music. Other elements — harmony, melody and color — are but external phenomena. What matters is the deep pulsing, the mathematically precise breathing of the large-scale sections of the form.
In Gubaidulina’s mind — and Labyrinth is no exception — proportions, oscillation between opposites, contradictions and confrontations almost always drive toward a critical moment of sudden change, in which accumulated tension is not resolved or released but instead transformed into another way of hearing, an aural vision, a glimpse of a different dimension, not so much a climax as a moment when we are invited to walk through a door into another world. The composer’s theologically specific word for what she means by this experience is “transfiguration.” Not for nothing did she spend much of her working life in Moscow living a stone’s throw from the Cemetery of the Transfiguration, in which Russia’s Old Believers buried their dead for several centuries.
All this is as much as to say that in every way Gubaidulina is a composer who prizes the symbolic meaning and inner resonance of a work of art far beyond the technical and coloristic means used to create it. Her music, in other words, is always about something beyond itself. The original Labyrinth was, of course, the famous architectural structure built by Daedalus at Knossos, an elaborate maze-like web of branching paths and passage ways leading, for those courageous and inspired enough to solve its puzzling choices, to a mysterious center. In Gubaidulina’s Labyrinth, we may intuit that the labyrinth she has in mind in an inner one, the soul perhaps, or the imagination.
Gerard McBurney is artistic programming adviser for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and creative director of Beyond the Score. His original compositions include orchestral works, a ballet, a chamber opera, songs and chamber music as well as many theater scores. He also is well known for his reconstructions of various lost and forgotten works by Dmitri Shostakovich. His reconstruction of the recently discovered fragment of Shostakovich’s opera Orango was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December 2011.